We keep talking about this but it is going to be the biggest topic of the second half of the year. The Nats have a choice to make. Make a play now or make a play later. (OK - let's be 100% truthful - there's always a chance to make a play NOW - but that involves a very large financial commitment and while the Nats have added payroll I don't think they are ready to be Top 5 anytime soon) We can argue either way but the truth of it is both choices are bad bets. The Nats are not likely to be playoff contenders soon nor are they likely to be playoff contenders 4-5 years down the road. (Beyond that - who knows about any team?)
The current roster is fine, roughly the low 70 win team they project out to be. They've gotten some planned production : Zimmerman, Strasburg, Storen. They've gotten some good luck : Dunn, Willingham, having career years, Pudge not collapsing, the early dominance of Clippard and Capps, Livan pitching better than he has in years. They've gotten some bad luck : Marquis injury, Lannan's collapse, Nyjer Morgan becoming a Nats CF in all the wrong ways. They've gotten some planned suckitude : Kennedy and Guzman barely holding up 2nd, Desmond fighting through his first year, RF issues, a back of the rotation built on the "Hope these other guys come back soon!" strategy. In other words, it's a pretty typical season.
In order for the Nats to be playoff contenders soon, without relying on everybody coming back and playing to their highest potential, the Nats need to add at least 15 wins. That's a alot of wins to add. That's like the Nats got A. Pujols to replace Guzman and got Albert P. to replace Roger Bernadina in the lineup. It's replacing Atilano AND Stammen AND Martin with Cliff Lee and his clones Biff Lee and Griff Lee. It's a two to three stud difference (assuming everywhere else stays the same). Of course that's hard to accomplish - it's much easier to make a 6-7 little changes where each one makes the team better. Or one big change and 4-5 smaller ones. Are the Nats able and willing to do that, to pay top dollar for say a RF and starter? Or pay top dollar to get a better 2nd baseman and a better mid-rotation starter and make the bench and bullpen the best in the league? I don't know. But if they don't go all the way out for next year then they start relying on a alot of wishes and dreams, a lot of good luck and no bad luck.
In order for the Nats to be playoff contenders later though, they would also need a lot of good luck. They have two tent poles in Zimmerman and Strasburg to build around. That's not enough. There is potential there for more. Bryce and ZNN both could be very good major leaguers (maybe more in Bryce's case). Desmond is still working it out and should at least be an average hitting SS for a few years, something not to be scoffed at. But there isn't a number of young pitchers or young hitters that are dominating the minors for the Nats. There's a few. They are ok. Of course the idea would be to supplement them with trades, but the days of the big deals are pretty much dead. The Nats can pull in maybe a couple quality players or maybe some quantity of guys for Dunn, Livan, Willingham, but not enough to think "Watch out for the Nats 4-5 years down the road". With good drafting, good trades, and some luck it could be that way, but could is the important word there. It could also not be that way and giving it 50/50 odds is being generous. Of course if it does pay off the reward is likely to be a longer run of more sustainable success.
The Nats can either gamble on a run the next couple years or make a bigger gamble on a run 4-5 years down the road. But because of the relative shambles the minor league system was in when the franchise moved to Washington, the relatively slow return of them to respectability, and the general eschewing of high payroll, neither choice is a good one. Of course they can't just pack it in and say the hell with it. They have to try something. It'll be interesting to see what they go for.